Thousands protest alleged vote fraud, media crackdown in Poland

People rally outside the Polish Parliament on Dec 17, 2016.
People rally outside the Polish Parliament on Dec 17, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WARSAW (AFP) - Several thousand people protested on Saturday (Dec 17) outside the presidential palace in Warsaw over alleged vote fraud and the right-wing government's plans to impose new restrictions on media coverage of parliament.

The fresh demonstrations came after an unprecedented night of unrest that saw demonstrators blockade the exits of the parliament building and opposition lawmakers take over its main chamber, with some pledging to remain until next week.

Protesters on Saturday waved Polish flags, blasted air horns and chanted "Stop the devastation of Poland" and "Liberty, equality, democracy" during a march towards parliament.

"I don't want to see Poland turned upside down" by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, a protester in her 60s, Malgorzata Kramarz, told AFP.

Inside the parliament on Friday, opposition lawmakers launched a protest, chanting "Democracy!" and "Free media!".

The speaker of parliament had to interrupt the session and hours later transferred the proceedings to another gallery so lawmakers could vote on the state budget for 2017.

The quorum for the vote was met, though the opposition slammed it as illegal.

The restrictions planned by the conservative party grant access to the parliament's press gallery to only two journalists per outlet, and ban them from shooting still pictures or video.

The limits prevent the media from recording images of lawmakers when they break the rules, for example by voting for an absent colleague.

Amid the protests, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and PiS party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski only managed to leave the building overnight by forcing their vehicles through the crowd under police protection.

The PiS has defended the measure, saying it seeks to ensure a comfortable work environment for both lawmakers and journalists.

"It's definitely not meant to reduce transparency," PiS lawmaker Arkadiusz Mularczyk said previously.

On Saturday, the main opposition parties announced they would seek an investigation into the budget vote, while dozens of lawmakers remained in the chambers and pledged to remain until next week.